My commute takes fifty minutes when there’s no traffic. Here are the times I’m guaranteed not to have any traffic: Saturday at 7 am. I commute to a college campus, generally speaking, in order to teach composition and writing classes. Composition and writing classes rarely take place at 7am on a Saturday.
I have been driving back and forth between Los Angeles and Irvine for years. Years. But I can’t describe the journey between those two points. I can’t list the exits. I can barely summon more than an image or two—downtown at sunset from the bend in the 101, a stretch of car dealerships as you merge onto the 405. Even though by some reasonable calculations I have spent as much time on these roads as I have spent with my child—no really, I did the math—I have blocked those hours out. My brain’s defense mechanism, its defense from itself, is pop music and a profound ability to daydream and disconnect. This isn’t work-lite, it’s not time when anything gets done. It’s lost time. Internal fog. I realized today that I have put serious mental energy into pretending that my commute does not exist.
The traffic in Orange County is called “the Orange crush.” It comes at the intersections of the 5, the 405, the 73, and the 55. The traffic in Los Angeles is called… traffic. It comes mostly downtown. It’s almost impossible to miss both rush hours. If you miss one, you almost always hit the other.
When possible, I take the train. The train runs along the cement flood channel of the Los Angeles river. I pay attention to the river. I can picture it in early morning and early evening light. I can picture the Santa Fe-lite architecture at the Fullerton station, the adobe tiles at Santa Ana, the way the sign outside the Angel’s baseball stadium stands alone in an empty sea of parking spaces at eighty forty am. I know the eerie mass of the zeppelin hangars at Tustin.
But commuting by car brings on a fugue state. The only thing I can tell you with complete certainty about the 5 between Silver Lake and Irvine is that there is a cube. A black cube. Somewhere around the point when the carpool lane begins. It rises on the side of the road, above a movie theater. I have no idea, to this day, what the fuck it’s for. A black cube. Smaller than a house. Larger than a semi.
I tried hard, today, to pay attention: A night at the Motel 6 costs $45. This made me feel old. The turret-shaped diner restaurant that closed a couple of years ago is still closed. The Halloween superstore seems to be doing OK. Plastics covering. Granite. Sofas. These things are all for sale.
I have been writing and thinking about Joan Didion for years. Literally. I have spent serious time analyzing her relationship to Lakewood, the Levittown of the West. I have also read and taught DJ Waldie’s memoir about Lakewood. And all this time, I have driven past the Lakewood exit. But I have never once felt enough ease, or freedom, or entitlement, to turn my car off the freeway at Lakewood. I know what it looks like only from books. Next time I drive, I’m getting off at Lakewood.
The normal, the evolved, grown-up thing to do is to barrel home. I have listened to countless hours of This American Life, and Louis Menand books, and The Lovely Bones, in the car. I try to pretend: I would be doing this anyway. If I were at home sitting on the couch, I would be reading these books. I’m not here, wasting my life sucking asphalt and fumes.
Once, my cousin gave me a book on tape. I generally share this particular cousin’s taste, but for some reason, this novel was like nails on a chalkboard. I kept listening, for her sake. The voice on the car radio is intimate. It’s just you and the voice, and maybe that forest-green SUV doing the “texting while driving” fish-tail. The occasional glimpse of a black cube. Just after meeting the author of Jarhead, I re-read it by listening to it in the car, and it was like I had spent a month with the man. But this book from my cousin was making me crazy. Eventually, I looked at the dust jacket for the audiobook. I recognized the actor reading it, the one whose voice had been making me tense up every time I turned the key in the ignition. It was my ex-boyfriend from college.
Tonight, I drove and tried to pay attention to my surroundings. I drove past the Citadel, a fortress masquerading as a mall, complete with stone towers guarded by Sumerian winged beasts and two-story digital-display billboards that flash ads at high speed. These LED sirens call to passing drivers: Crash here and consume! The ads today included:
A pale blue all-text promise of a $9.99 seafood dinner.
The question “DO YOU NEED WINDOWS?” hovering above a grimacing, androgynous floating head.
A background of either fire or fireworks advertising the mall itself: “Exit here!”
The Citadel is the shock-and-awe of outlet malls.
Someday, after I have stopped at Lakewood, identified the cube, and somehow earned my freedom, I will go to the Citadel. I will buy myself some Panda Express fried rice and a pair of cheap high heels. And I will pay attention.